Zoom into the picture above and you will see a face recognizable to many. The mother in the photo is Florence Thompson, most famously known as the migrant mother. This photograph was one in a series taken in 1936 by Resettlement Administration photographer Dorothea Lange. In this primary source activity, students will examine photographs individually and as a set. They will then analyze a variety of primary sources and texts to use as evidence in an essay that defines documentary photography, describes the role of a documentary photographer in sharing stories and shaping public opinion, and determines whether Lange did or did not adhere to the student identified definition and role with the migrant mother series of photographs.
Enduring understanding Stories told through various media can be powerful influences.
Essential question What is documentary photography and what is the role of a documentary photographer in sharing stories and shaping public opinion?
- Use the image at the top of this post along with the four below. Click each image to access the bibliographic record and various downloading options.
- Dorothea Lange photographic notes: Feb. 19, 1936 (.pdf)
- Dorothea Lange oral history transcript excerpt (.pdf – full text: The making of a documentary photographer : oral history transcript / and related material, 1960-1968)
- Florence Thompson oral history & bio (Wessels Living History Farm)
Articles & other texts
- Exploring Contexts: Migrant Mother (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
- “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget” by Dorothea Lange (Appendix B from California Social Scientist Volume I: Education, Field Research, and Family Paul Schuster Taylor)
- Migrant Mother: 1936 by Paul Taylor (Appendix A from California Social Scientist Volume I: Education, Field Research, and Family Paul Schuster Taylor)
- Migrant Mother: The Story as Told by Her Grandson (accessed via the Internet Archive)
- Executive Order 7027 Establishing the Resettlement Administration (American Presidency Project)
- Resettlement Administration (Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture)
- Sketchbooks: The Forgotten People Dorothea Lange & Paul Taylor (Library of Congress)
- Roy Stryker brought America into focus (Library of Congress)
- Letter from Roy Stryker regarding Dorothea Lange’s work (Library of Congress)
- Dorothea Lange: Documentary Photography (.pdf, excerpt from California Social Scientist Volume I: Education, Field Research, and Family Paul Schuster Taylor)
- “Photographic License” by Geoffrey Dunn New Times: San Luis Obispo (accessed via the Internet Archive)
- Making Sense of Documentary Photography by James Curtis (History Matters)
- Photographic truth and documentary photography (Dr. Howard Zehr, Eastern Mennonite University)
- Photojournalism and Documentary Photography (Nieman Reports, Harvard University)
- Composition Tips for Photographers (Digital Photography School)
- Working individually, or in groups, ask students to analyze an image and complete the activities listed below (student instruction sheet).
- How does this picture make you feel? What is your initial emotional response to the image? Write down the first 5 words that come to mind when you look at this photograph.
- Look at this picture again more closely. What details do you notice? What is the focus of the image? How do the framing, angle, and shading affect your view of the image? Write down 3-5 nouns, 3-5 verbs, and 3-5 adjectives that you think describe this scene or situation.
- Focus on one person in the image. What details do you notice? Imagine that you are this person and write down 3-5 nouns, 3-5 verbs, and 3-5 adjectives that you think describe how this person is feeling.
- Use your word lists to help you fill out the primary source thinking triangle.
- When students have finished, arrange completed primary source thinking triangles in groups according to image used.
- Post the images and associated primary source thinking triangles around the room.
- Have students complete a gallery walk and note their reactions to student views of the same image and different images in the series.
- In a class discussion, ask students to share their views on the definition of documentary photography and its role in sharing important stories and shaping public opinion.
- After the discussion, tell students it’s their turn to investigate this issue more deeply through the lens of the “Migrant Mother” series of photographs: students will write an essay that defines documentary photography, describes the role of a documentary photographer in sharing stories and shaping public opinion, and analyzes a variety of primary and secondary sources to determine if Dorothea Lange did or did not adhere to the student identified definition and role with this series of photographs. (Use the CCSS Writing standards for your grade to create the essay rubric.)
CCSS Standards Alignment
Reading: Informational Text » Grades 6-12
Standards 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10
Reading: History/Social Studies » Grades 6-12
Standards 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
Speaking & Listening » Grades 6-12
Standards 1, 2
Writing » Grades 6-12
Standards 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10